Urban Wire Police body camera policies: What’s in and what’s out
Nancy G. La Vigne, Margaret Ulle
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State policies governing police body camera use are changing as rapidly as cameras are being deployed. About a year ago, we launched an interactive feature that tracks relevant body camera legislation. Since then, legislatures in 18 states passed new body camera laws.

Our updated feature illustrates several shifts in policy and focus. Here’s our take on what’s in and what’s out.

Swift passage of new body camera laws
Establishment of a pilot or study group

The introduction of new bills was prolific in 2015. But in 2016, legislators quickly recognized that the issues around body camera use are more complex than they expected. In several states, the initial introduction of body camera bills was replaced with legislation establishing a commission, study group, or pilot program to better understand and guide sound policy development.

To date, 16 states have engaged or are engaging in some form of a pilot program or study group for body cameras. Legislation passed in Nebraska in 2016 required the state’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice to issue formal guidance, setting minimum standards on officer training and retention and destruction of camera recordings.

Officer-determined camera activation
Policies prohibiting camera use

A long-held myth of body cameras is that they are rolling 24/7. In reality, officers have the ability to turn them on and off.

Sixteen states have passed laws on body camera activation. While most dictate when cameras should be turned on, more recent legislation dictates when they should be turned off.   

In the District of Columbia, new legislation states that officers may not record at a school when they are engaged in a “noncritical contact” or are mediating minor incidents involving students. Similarly, a Connecticut law restricts officers from recording in a hospital, mental health, or other medical facility setting, unless they are recording a crime suspect.

Public records retention
Records release mandates

The high-profile shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, prompted public demand for release of the camera footage documenting the incident. Local officials initially denied requests. But had the shooting of Scott occurred just a few weeks later, a new North Carolina statute would actually have prohibited the release of footage altogether.

In contrast, the same week Scott was killed, a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shot and killed Terence Crutcher, an event captured on the officer’s patrol car dashboard camera and police helicopter camera. In this case, public demand to release the footage was met within 72 hours because Oklahoma legislation prescribes for the public release of body camera footage and prohibits redaction of footage depicting a death caused by a law enforcement officer.

Investing in cameras at all costs
Opting out altogether

Substantial federal resources have been allocated to agencies for body cameras—$20 million in 2016 alone—and agencies are eager to adopt them given early research indicating that camera use can reduce police use of force and citizen complaints, though later research has shown mixed (or negative) results.

Yet cameras come with many hidden costs, some of which are augmented by new laws. A recent Indiana statute mandates agencies retain body camera footage for at least 190 days. After estimating that this would cost as much as $100,000 annually, the Clarksville, Indiana, police department suspended its body camera program.

The adoption of body cameras will no doubt continue in 2017, along with the introduction of new technology, like auto-activated cameras. We expect statehouses will continue catching up to address this shifting policy landscape. And we’ll be sure to make updates to our feature of state body camera laws as the issues evolve.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center